“Don’t you dare hit me!”
“Don’t fight me.”
The man and the woman were at it again, the emotion in their voices carrying throughout the house. A mix between anger, despair, confusion, and loss in the tremor of his voice and in the confused and mournful tone of hers. The early years had been so happy, then content, then sudden turmoil with no warning and no explanation. One minute she was herself, the next she was a stranger.
The stately Victorian had been a happy home when they moved in as newlyweds and then when the children came. Now, it suffered the indignities of constant turmoil like the woman and the man who lived in it. During her “spells,” their two children, a boy and a girl, fled to the top floor of the turret, locking themselves inside, sometimes for entire days and nights, drawing comfort from each other’s words as they shared make believe stories of a happy future. They kept the room stocked with enough snacks and jars of water for those times when they didn’t dare leave, which became many.
The living room already bore a curtain half yanked from one side of the back window and received a new indentation in the front door when the wife flung a heavy crystal candy bowl at her spouse and missed. He ducked, rushed her, and toppled her to the floor, holding her hands before she could claw his face. He knew her practiced moves by now. Ordinarily, he was not violent with his wife and would never think to strike her, but he did learn over time to protect himself when she had her spells. Only once when she had connected right to his groin had he actually struck back on impulse. He regretted that every time he had to trap her, restrain her, and put her to bed with a pill. The threat of institutionalizing her at the mental hospital made her take it.
The house didn’t understand the words, but it did comprehend the body language. The man leaned forward, towering over his wife on the bed, and tied her hands together. Then he connected them to the long cord around her midsection holding her prone. Those nights were quiet, the kids came down and moved about freely, the husband took care of dinner, dishes, homework, and pre-bed rituals. The wife rested after days of not sleeping, long endless days of surviving on coffee and chain-smoking cigarettes until the period of violence came. Unable to sleep through the night, she woke at intervals. It was because of her wakened periods that the husband learned he had to tie her down.
The chill of fear held him in statue-stillness when his neighbor greeted him one day with a question: “Say, Ben, what was Marcia doing walking along Grant Street last night?”
Ben thought quickly, “Oh, she goes for walks sometimes when she gets insomnia. She wakes me up before she goes.”
“So you’re okay with her going out in her night clothes and slippers?”
“Oh, right. Women issues. You know those hot flashes they get? She has to cool down, she gets ’em so bad. Didn’t know she wasn’t staying on our street though. I’ll have a talk with ’er. Well, gotta run. Can’t be late for work.”
That night was the first time he tied her to her bed, covering her mouth before the neighbor could hear her scream, and using the institution as a threat until she accepted the pill the doctor had given him. He didn’t know if she understood it was for her own good. But he knew he wouldn’t sleep otherwise. What if she got hit by a car? What if some psycho abducted her?
During those episodes of war, the house became collateral damage room by room. Doors slammed, and the plaster in the walls cracked, windows and mirrors shattered, a chair stood in a corner missing a leg—the evidence of violence was everywhere. Every room became a battle zone. As time passed, the blows against the house grew larger. The damage more difficult for the husband to fix on his own. No way he would bring in a carpenter or handyman, the house heard him say, even if it were a friend. He told no one his wife and he battled because the fight was more between him, her, and her mind than the two of them. It was the ’60s. People didn’t talk about such things.
In worse times when he did have to commit her, she had to go through something the house heard the husband say on the telephone, electroshock therapy. The house only knew it was at peace. At first, it enjoyed the stillness and the calm in the family when the woman was gone. The house experienced a renewed sense of care from the trio when they nursed its many injuries, fixing a hole here, mending a loose board there. It settled into its foundation like a dog getting comfortable to bed down. But then the wife returned a completely different individual, walking about like a sleep walker, so out of reality she was helpless to do household chores or cook
meals. The cycle repeated, and early on the house understood that for it to feel at ease the woman had to experience something horrible, something she called hell when she struck her husband’s chest with her fists. That was the therapy which was supposed to cure her, he argued back. He didn’t know it was going to be so bad. They fell to the floor sometimes as she curled into a ball and wept until she couldn’t, and he wrapped himself around her. Tears fell from his eyes then too. They remained cocooned like that for long periods. Thereafter, the house found no comfort in the periods of quiet.
And then her anger or whatever it was turned her into a combatant again, and the war waged on. In cycles, every period of peace came after a battle, and they went round and round. A year later, the sudden passing of the wife prompted the widower to take his children elsewhere. Something had happened to make him tell the children he could no longer live where she had done something that stopped her life. The house listened but did not have the means to decipher what the husband and the doctor talked about on the day the house was abandoned.
“Schizophrenia,” the house heard. “The kids are devastated.”
“They need counseling, you know that, right? They need to understand their mother’s condition was to blame. And perhaps they need to guard against depression or something else they might have inherited. I can refer someone, if you wish…”
The house wondered what the doctor had said to cause the father to look at the man like he’d grown into an unnatural creature. The house saw the spark of anger in the father’s eyes fade into acceptance, and then acknowledgment made his shoulders droop. “You’re right, doc.”
The doctor left and shortly after, so did the incomplete family. The wife had left them for another life, a life of peace, exactly a month prior. The pitiable, erratic mother had listened all those years to the voice or voices which told her to hate her husband and to push him away. It was no wonder she would accept nothing from him and fought his efforts to help her. The children had been caught in the middle. During the wartime, the mother didn’t want the children near her, often told them to “run” though not where or why. The first time was when the turret room became a refuge and a punishment. After a while, they hated that room and what it represented. The house always felt a chill from that previously round cozy place that no one occupied unless the war waged.
Confusion reigned, and the children didn’t quite understand the severity of the attack of the illness on their mother, weren’t informed by doctors or the father about what the problem was, and didn’t know what to do about any of it. No one spoke about such things back then. Before she passed, the mother had been having a period of lucidity, the drugs finally regulated so she could function without being like a somnambulist zombied out with medication. She left her illness behind.
And so the house stood dormant, devoid of human habitation for years. From time to time, the temperature in the house dropped or rose noticeably, and it felt as though it were transforming somehow on its own. Then the voice spoke.
NOTE FROM THE AUTHOR:
Inspired by the poem “Schizophrenia” by Jim Stevens (1991)
Carmen Baca taught a variety of English and history courses, mostly at the high school and college levels over the course of thirty-six years before retiring in 2014. Her command of both English and Spanish enables her to write with true story-telling talent. Her debut novel El Hermano, published in April of 2017 and became a finalist in the NM-AZ. She has also published 32 short works in online literary magazines, women’s blogs, and anthologies. She and her husband live a quiet life in the country caring for their animals and any stray that happens to come by.